Liszt Manuscripts: A Bicentenary Presentation

Franz Liszt: Letter to Pierre Érard (August 12, 1824)


Letter to Pierre Érard

Letter to Blandine and

Cosima (1855)

Contin. (2-4)

Contin. (5-6)

Tre sonetti di Petrarca

Sonetto 47

Sonetto 123
Editorial & References
liszt letter 1824

Commentary and translation: Lodewijk Muns

Franz Liszt has been a public figure since the age of nine. In October 1820 he gave his first concert in Oedenburg (Sopron), near his birthplace Raiding on the Austrian-Hungarian border. His international career took off three years later, in 1823, when he and his father Adam traveled to Paris. Few letters written by Franz Liszt in these early years have survived. The letter here presented, which he wrote at the age of twelve, is one of the earliest.[1]

It is tempting to compare these letters to those of that other musical child genius and traveling virtuoso, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Striking is the fondness for mixing languages (Liszt picked up French very quickly after his arrival in Paris), wordplay (embrasser/embarrasser, to embrace and to annoy) and, unexpectedly maybe, but very much like Mozart, a little childish crudity found in what he calls the “Second Act”. It is a particularly moving document; even in its graphic appearance it shows the playful spirit which is the source of all creativity. This letter also shows an early stage in the becoming of a social genius, of a man who was able to tolerate and captivate large numbers of people nearly everyday, pleasing most of them (those excepted who disliked his flair and flamboyancy), and who by his correspondence maintained an enormous social network; the estimated number of letters preserved is some 10.000-12.000, about half of which has been published.[2] Most of his correspondence is in French, since he had quickly lost his ease with German (he wrote in French even to his mother).

Liszt and Érard

The Érard family played an important part in Liszt’s career as a child virtuoso. When father Adam and ‘Franzi’ arrived in Paris in December 1823, they took lodgings in a hotel close to the stagecoach terminal, in the Rue du Mail. On the other side of the street was the Maison Erard, the building in which the famous piano and harp manufacturer Sébastien Érard had his apartment, workshop and a small recital hall. Though we do not know how contact was established, it must have been a logical step for Adam Liszt to cross the street and present his son to this important figure in the piano world. The acquaintance turned out to be a success both personally and commercially, to the benefit of both parties.

Sébastien Erard (1752-1831) built his first fortepiano in 1777, and the quality of his work rapidly earned him a reputation. He opened his business in Rue du Mail in 1781. When demand exceeded his powers, his brother Jean-Baptiste joined the firm. A few years later he made his first attempts to gain a foothold in the British market, and when the French Revolution temporarily ruined business at home, he took refuge in London, where in 1792 he founded an establishment in Great Marlborough Street. In the following years the firm was continued in both cities.

In the 1820’s the piano was still under intensive development. The demand for larger compass, bigger and more sustained sound, and the wish to create the illusion of ‘orchestral’ colours demanded greater sophistication of the mechanics involved. The keyboard allows for no tone control except by speed and duration of touch, and an adequate transfer of movement – from the player’s finger to the hammer head which strikes the string – was complicated by a combination of factors. Larger sound meant larger force and longer striking distance, but also a heavier and slower mechanism. The hammers had to rebound freely and immediately from the string, to leave it vibrating. And in order to give the player the possibility to strike the key several times in quick succession, some device was needed which would catch the hammer in the rebound, at a point closer to the string, with the key still depressed. A solution patented by Sébastien Érard in 1808 (the first ‘double escapement action’) proved unreliable. It took many years to produce an improved version, which was patented in 1821 (in London) and 1822 (in Paris). As the London patent specifies,

Liszt 1824

Liszt in 1824,
lithograph by François le Villain
after a drawing by
Auguste-Xavier Leprince

(Coll. Gemeentemuseum,
The Hague)

This mechanism is so contrived as to catch the hammer in its fall, and to stop or hold it as long as the key is kept entirely down, so as to prevent the possibility of its rebounding to the wires again, while it releases it again with the smallest rise of the finger end of the key.[3]

An instrument containing this action won the gold medal at a Paris exhibition of 1823. The new Érard thus came just in time to help Liszt launch his French and British career. It had been a promotion strategy of Érard to make gifts of their instruments to great composers and pianists; Haydn got one in 1801, Beethoven in 1803. For the firm, the performances by ‘Le petit Litz’ or ‘Master Liszt’ provided excellent publicity; the posters expressly mentioned the instrument he used, in wordings similar to those quoted by Liszt in the signature of this letter (“sur S.en Erards new patent Pianoforte”).[4] The instrument provided by Érard, which was transported to the various concert venues, was the fourth of its kind that was built; it had a compass of seven octaves and a length of 2.4 m.[5] It was praised in extravagant terms by Adam Liszt in a letter to Carl Czerny, ‘Franzi’s’ former teacher in Vienna:

erard action

Érard's double escapement
action in two positions,
after the 1821 patent

The Erard piano reaches such a high level of perfection that it looks forward to the next century. It is impossible to describe it; one must see it, hear it, play it.[6]

The artist himself wrote to Pierre Érard at a later date, after a recital in the Scala theatre of Milan:

Let them not tell me any more that the piano is not a suitable instrument for a big hall, that the sounds are lost in it, that the nuances disappear, etc. I bring as witnesses the three thousand people who filled the immense Scala theatre yesterday evening from the pit to the gods on the seventh balcony (for there are seven tiers of boxes here), all of whom heard and admired, down to the smallest details your beautiful instrument. This is not flattery; you have known me too long to think me capable of the least deception. But it is a fact, publicly recognized here, that never before has a piano created such an effect.[7]

It is likewise to Pierre Érard that this letter is addressed. Pierre Érard (1794-1855) was son of Jean-Baptiste and nephew of Sébastien, who is here referred to as ‘your uncle’. Pierre Erard was at the head of the London branch since 1814 or 1815; in 1829 he took over the Paris branch as well, and after Sébastien’s death in 1831 inherited the entire estate.

Father and son Liszt had arrived in London in May 1824, in the company of Pierre and a concert instrument (apparently, no similar instrument was available in London).[8] They found lodging in the Erard premises at 18 Great Marlborough Street. Public concerts took place during the next month in London and Manchester; besides, Liszt performed at private soirees and for King George IV at Windsor Castle.

The letter is written during the return voyage, after disembarkation in Calais. The divisions into a first and second ‘act’ may suggest that Liszt was already preoccupied with his opera Don Sanche, the commission for which was given shortly before the London trip; it was performed in October 1825, and has remained Liszt’s only opera. (The opera, though, is in one act.)

Of the people mentioned in this letter, Mr. Bruzaud/Bruzaut can be identified with great probability as Georges Bruzaud, who became head of the London branch of Érard in 1855.

Adam Liszt

Adam Liszt (1789-1828),
miniature on ivory
signed C.F.P. 1826
(Coll. NMI, The Hague)

[1] Walker (Vol. 1, p. 14, 105) cites letters dated June and July 1824.
[2] Publication remains fragmentary. Even in the Liszt year 2011 there is no perspective of an integral edition, in spite of the opportunities and advantages offered by the possibility of digitization. See this proposal of 2009.
[3] Harding, p. 172
[4] Cf. the London poster reproduced in Walker, Vol. 1, p. 104: “The incomparable Master Liszt has in the most flattering manner consented to display his inimitable powers on the New Grand Piano Forte invented by Sébastien Erard”.
[5] Beaupain, p. 247; La Mara, Classisches und Romantisches p. 242.
[6] Walker, Vol. 1, p. 93 after La Mara, p. 254.
[7] Walker, Vol. 1, p. 316 (December 11, 1837).
[8] According to Walker, Vol. 1, p. 103; some sources have substituted Pierre with Sébastien.